Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Vuelta al Pais Vasco: Alto de Usartza

If today's climb was made for the steep-sprint specialists then stage 4 presents a summit finish for those who prefer long range attacks over a number of kilometres, but expect the same faces to be at the sharp end of the race as it's do or die for the GC contenders - especially those who are not so comfortable in the time trials. Here is a look at tomorrows finale on the Alto de Usartza...

The Alto de Usartza once again comes after four other classified climbs much akin to yesterdays stage meaning riders already have tired legs before the real battle commences. The climb itself averages just over 6% over a total 7.2km but like today's finish this doesn't tell the full story.

The opening two kilometres of the climb hover around 4-5% which means the pace is likely to be much higher than today's climb which started with stiff 7% sections before levelling out. The Usartza doesn't level in the middle, instead there is a tough 3km section averaging well over 9% and it's here that riders like Porte and Contador will be looking to put in a sustained attack.

Another up and down day awaits.
Today was all about the super-steep finish and this suits a certain rider and not necessarily the main GC contenders hence why Richie Porte and Alberto Contador struggled a little more than was maybe anticipated. Tour climbers like Thibaut Pinot, Van Den Broeck and Ruder Hesjedal all finished well over a minute back showing not all climbers can cope as well on the crazier gradients - here it was the explosive Colombians who won the day. Sergio Henao (Sky) won the stage just ahead of fellow countryman Carlos Betancur (AG2R) whilst Nairo Quintana (Movistar) originally forced the pace as the steep sections began.

A good day for the Colombians
If today was a steep finish then tomorrow is the polar opposite. A slightly steeper middle section and a higher gradient overall makes this climb perfect for the likes of Richie Porte and Albert Contador who like to force the pace earlier and put in more sustained attacks over a longer, tougher distance but there is a hidden danger on this climb too - the final 500 metres don't massively ramp upwards, instead the completely flatten out and even descend slightly. If a rider wants to make a move stick on this climb then they better have the legs and TT power to draw it out to the finish line. If an attack comes to late its likely to be caught on the flat finale.

This stage certainly won't be a straight-up two horse race between Porte and Contador though. Indeed Contador will have to pull something special out of the bag here as although he's a good time trialer, Contador doesn't look to be in as good form as Porte is at this stage of the season. But is Porte even still riding for the overall? Team-mate Henao is currently in the race leaders jersey and a good 10 seconds in front of Porte - true, but if it comes down to the time trial then there's only going to be one Sky man leading the charge here, and it isn't Henao. Quintana gained a couple of seconds on Porte and Contador too but his TT let's him down so it will have to be all out attack tomorrow if he wants to feature on the podium.

Is Peraud a good bet?
It's a recurring theme and riders know they will need to make ground up in advance of the time trial if they want any chance of winning the race or even reaching the podium. Looking past the favourites there are plenty of riders still capable of climbing to victory but they will have to settle for all or nothing and put in a real shift on the Usartza. Riders to look out for are Fuglsang (RSNT), Weening (Orica-GreenEdge), Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R) amongst others, including highest place Basque hopeful Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel) who will certainly want to claw back some of his 26 second deficit. Another rider who could still find himself on the podium is BMC's Tejay Van Garderen - he's 33 seconds back but would be a favourite to win the TT stage.

Whatever happens expect a real dog-fight tomorrow. There is a host of riders so closely bunch at the top-end of the classification that it's still all to play for in terms of podium positioning. A word of warning though - climbs like this have produced some stale racing this year with riders more intent on watching the favourites than putting in an attack, to an extent nullifying the race...

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